It was an incongruous coda to an improbable appointment. Rafa Benitez’s initial statement to the Newcastle public concluded: “C’mon Toon Army! The club and I need your total involvement!”
As anyone who has encountered Benitez knows, his utterings are usually serious and restrained. He does not speak in exclamation marks. He probably never said “C’mon” in six years at Liverpool. It all added to the surreal feel.
Real Madrid managers do not tend to walk straight into a relegation battle. Newcastle United, who prefer managers who will not argue with the club's hierarchy, do not make a habit of appointing political animals who have clashed with power brokers at previous clubs. A board wedded to an increasingly unsuccessful transfer policy make for unlikely employers for one with dictatorial tendencies and who wants complete control himself.
The reality is that Newcastle and Benitez are not a natural fit. They certainly need him, with 10 games to go and a disjointed, demoralised group staring relegation in the face. Perhaps he needs them, too. Benitez mentioned the comparative proximity of Newcastle to his Merseyside home. It is not commutable, but it is rather nearer than Madrid and Naples, his last two cities of work.
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He has been on a six-year search for a club he could call home. He has been jettisoned midseason by two of Europe’s super clubs, in Inter Milan and Madrid. He has only been termed an interim appointment at another, Chelsea. He lasted two seasons at Napoli, but has not seen out a campaign anywhere else. Throughout it all, his preference for employment in England has been established.
Liverpool have not turned back to him, though there is no doubt Benitez would have accepted the job in 2012. Manchester United cannot opt for him. Chelsea thought they could, but the reaction from the fans proved otherwise. There has not been a vacancy at Arsenal. There will not be one at Manchester City in the next three years.
West Ham claimed they had agreed terms with Benitez last summer before Madrid’s unexpected move. The lure of his boyhood club was too strong but the sight of West Ham now, heading for the Olympic Stadium with a high-class side who threaten to qualify for the Uefa Champions League, may make him regret a choice his heart made.
Instead, Benitez has a three-year deal on Tyneside but, more pertinently, two months to avert an embarrassing demotion to the Championship. The sacked Steve McClaren would shoulder far more of the blame but it would reflect badly on him if he does not have the immediate impact required.
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It renders the run-in fascinating and not merely because, if Newcastle are to stay up, it will almost certainly be at Sunderland’s expense, and vice versa. His first home game, next Sunday, is against Sunderland. A mutual dislike with Sam Allardyce makes it all the more fascinating.
Relegation-threatened clubs tend to parachute in managers such as Allardyce. Benitez is accustomed to working with better players, in more elevated positions in the league. He is an ambitious appointment, one who could end years of underachievement of Newcastle and give them the defensive nous, tactical excellence and serious professionalism they have lacked too often.
Yet that requires Newcastle to give him the leeway to make a difference. And that, in turn, is dependent on Benitez emerging the victor in the dogfight at the foot of the table. It is an improbable place to find the hero of Istanbul, the 2005 Champions League winner who long seemed a part of the managerial class of Galacticos. At least, rather than being compared to predecessors such as Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, now he is a welcome and exponential upgrade on the doomed McClaren.
Not that this was a plausible scenario when he was unveiled at the Bernabeu in June. But this has been a dispiriting campaign for Benitez, sacked by Madrid in January, and Newcastle alike. Theirs is a strange alliance, borne of desperation that both sides must hope will appear inspiration.
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